BALI, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Under a full moon one night in 2006, 30 machete-wielding men surrounded Aleta Baun in the middle of a forest as she headed home to breastfeed her youngest daughter.
They said they had been hired to kill Baun, who was leading protests against mining operations in her West Timor community.
She called her husband, a primary school teacher who was at home looking after their children.
“He said, ‘We will come and help you,’ and I asked, ‘How many of you are there?’. When he said ‘Five,’ I told him, ‘That’s useless. Don’t come. Stay at home so if something happens to me there’s someone to look after the kids’,” recalled Baun, now 54 and dressed in locally hand-woven clothes.
Baun escaped death that night. Her attackers decided to take the money she had on her - about $20 - rather than kill or gang rape her, after discussing both options in front of her. They hacked her legs with machetes, leaving her with scars she still bears today.
“Each of the men slapped me, pulled my hair and kicked me. They banged my head against a tree. I now get headaches often,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It was very, very painful but I just prayed. I still feel thankful they just hit me and did not kill me.”
This was one of Baun’s closest shaves with death but by no means the only one.
Baun’s campaign of peaceful resistance against companies mining marble on Mutis Mountain, a place her Molo indigenous community considers sacred, made her powerful enemies.
Death threats forced her to leave home for a year. She could not live with her husband or children out of fear for their safety. She and her fellow activists faced harassment, arrests and beatings, both from the local authorities and thugs hired by the mining companies, Baun said.
Baun, born into a farming family and affectionately known as Mama Aleta, began her activism a decade before the assassination attempt.
It was a June morning in 1996 when the housewife, standing on the side of the road, saw trucks laden with marble from Mutis heading to the biggest city nearby. She felt unbearable sadness.
Molo is located in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), the western half and Indonesian part of Timor island. An area rich in marble, manganese, gold, oil, gas and many other commodities, it lies south of Mutis Mountain, which is home to the headwaters of West Timor’s major rivers.
In the 1980s, the district government began issuing permits to mining companies without consulting local villagers.
“The mining destroyed our land, water, forests and food,” Baun said.
“This earth is our flesh, the rock is our bone, the water is our blood, the forests are our hair and skin. If any one of the four elements is gone, we cannot live properly,” she told the first “Summit on Women and Climate” in Bali this month, where her story became a source of inspiration for grassroots women activists risking their lives to protect the environment.
Baun and three others started organising local people in West Timor. The community set up Pokja Organisasi A ’Taimamus, an indigenous organisation, and expanded their campaign, mostly financed by Baun and her supporters.
In 2009, 150 Molo women spent an entire year sitting on marble blocks at one of the mining sites, quietly weaving their traditional cloth.
It was a conscious decision to have women on the front line since they are the ones who go out foraging for food, dye and medicine. During the protest, the men cooked, cleaned and cared for the children.
By 2010, the mining companies had halted their operations at all four sites in Molo territory.
For her leadership and courage, Baun received the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize awarded to individuals “for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk”.
On hearing she had won, Baun insisted the $150,000 prize money should go to the whole community, said Nonette Royo, executive director of Samdhana Institute, which has supported indigenous communities in Indonesia for over a decade. Goldman responded that the prize is for individuals.
Samdhana stepped in to manage the money, placing two thirds in a fund. A third was spent on two trucks to transport community members to meetings, and to help market their farm produce and woven goods.
Money earned from the trucks pays for vehicle maintenance and funds activities led by Baun’s organisation, including building a bridge over a river where many children died trying to reach a school on the other side. The rest of the prize money is gathering interest in a time deposit.
Baun, who was elected as a member of the provincial parliament in this year’s elections, says her work is far from over.
“I’m quite sure it will bring me much more challenges and threats because my fight is no longer just for the women of my village but for the people in the province,” she said.
Oil and gas companies have now expressed interest in developing coastal areas of West Timor. “So we may have to take them on in the future,” Baun said.
“I’ve felt disheartened, disappointed and abandoned many times - but I realised I can’t avoid these (emotions) because this is the path of my movement, my fight,” she added.
“If anyone kills me, I would accept it. Every human being will die one day.”
(Editing by Megan Rowling: firstname.lastname@example.org)